How qualified will the new judges in the Hungarian Constitutional Court be?: The case of István Balsai

It was on June 26 that I promised to say something about the fifth nominee who by now is a full-fledged member of the Constitutional Court. I said at that time that “I am leaving the most outrageous nominee, István Balsai, for another day.” There are so many things that would preclude him from consideration that I don’t even know where to start.

 

First, he most likely doesn’t even satisfy the written requirement that if the nominee doesn’t have an academic background, i.e., hasn’t published serious studies in respectable journals, he must have at least twenty years of practice either as a lawyer or as a judge. However, according to his biography published on his own web site, Balsai doesn’t have that magic twenty years of legal practice. According to the authors of the TASZ/EKI report on the nominees’ qualifications he spent only eighteen years as a lawyer.

He graduated from law school in 1972 and spent two years as a trainee (ügyvédjelölt) before he took the bar exam. It was only after that, in 1974, that he started his law practice which he continued until 1990 when he became a full-time politician. In the last twenty-one years he has had no connection with his original profession.

Since Balsai is not the kind of guy who takes criticism lying down, he countered the charge that he had not practiced law for twenty years by saying that he had remained a member of the Bar Association for two years after he closed his practice. When it was pointed out that membership in that body doesn’t qualify as legal practice, he retorted that as far as he was concerned “that’s the end of the discussion of the subject.”

In 1990 it was easy to become a minister overnight. The new prime minister, József Antall, wouldn’t choose anyone who was ever a member of MSZMP and thus some no-names occupied very important government positions. Balsai was one of them. After joining MDF he became a member of parliament and minister of justice, a position he filled for four years. Meanwhile he was moving higher and higher within his own party, but in 2004 when he realized that the chairman of the party, Ibolya Dávid, was reluctant to join Fidesz at the next elections, he decided, together with a number of other disaffected MDF members, to quit the party in hope of greener pastures. After the compulsory six months as an independent he immediately joined Fidesz where he also made quite a career for himself. In no time he was deputy leader of the Fidesz caucus. By 2010 Balsai belonged to the closest circle of Viktor Orbán and thus received the sensitive job of commissioner investigating police abuses during the 2006 riots.

The authors of the TASZ/EKI report found two short pieces of writing by István Balsai, one from 1992 and another written together with György Sándorfi about individual rights. The 1992 piece is much more important because Balsai is the sole author and the topic of the paper is the Constitutional Court. He was extremely critical of the court under the leadership of László Sólyom. The basis of his criticism was that the court didn’t pay enough attention to the needs of the government. Some of the court’s decisions “place the government in a very difficult situation.” Plus the court didn’t take into consideration the cost factor associated with some of its decisions. He brought up as an example a decision that forbade the government from designating only one “personal number” (személyi szám) per individual. In plain language, a person’s tax number, social security number, number of one’s driver’s licence and any other number by which authorities keep track of people would have been combined into a single ID number. The court felt that such a unitary number could jeopardize the individual freedom of the citizens.

In this same article Balsai complained about the so-called fact that the powers of the Constitutional Court were too great and reminded its members about “the primacy of the parliament.” I don’t think that I have to explain what a serious misunderstanding this is of the functioning of a democratic state with its checks and balances. When some members of the Constitutional Court called the message of Balsai’s article “unfortunate,” Balsai retorted that “what is really unfortunate is that a judicial organization regardless of its position wishes to interfere with the legislative process.” A man with these views is certainly unfit to serve on a constitutional court in a democracy.

And then there is the question of independence. As a very active member of parliament he has drafted several pieces of legislation that most likely will eventually come before the Court. How can he rule on these cases? Will he recuse himself? In fact, of late there has been practically nothing in which Balsai wasn’t involved, if in no other way but by voting for it.

Taking all this into consideration, one has a fair idea what kind of judge Balsai is going to be. The authors of the study point out that because Balsai has had no connection with the law since 1990 it is possible that the little he remembers is from the period of the one-party dictatorship. His political activities of late are not promising either. He was the one who suggested the nullification of verdicts where the sole witness was a policeman. He was also the one who suggested the piece of legislation that restricted the powers of the Constitutional Court. And Balsai is the author of a bill that would change the Criminal Code for certain special “important” cases such that the accused is not allowed to see a lawyer for forty-eight hours.

The choice of Balsai as one of the new constitutional judges is perhaps the most controversial, although the decision to appoint Béla Pokol is a close second. I don’t know how other people feel about István Balsai, but I consider him one of the most unpleasant members of the Hungarian parliament. Arrogant, cynical, and a turncoat. However, he is undoubtedly the perfect addition to a politically servile constitutional court.

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florian
Guest

Do as I say, not do as I do. Just goes to show that, as usual, they can make up and break the rules whenever they want.

Member

He looks like a local communist party secretary from the countryside in the 70th. All he needs is faux leather hat. Brrr …

Member

“When it was pointed out that membership in that body doesn’t qualify as legal practice, he retorted that as far as he was concerned “that’s the end of the discussion of the subject.”
I am afraid this is very much the whole Fidesz philosophy as far as decision making and accountability goes.

Member

Philosophy? You give him too much credit. This is just retards with power:
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Johnny Boy
Guest

“He looks like a local communist party secretary”
I always suspected it was only me who was forbidden to judge a ‘politician’ by his/her looks.

Johnny Boy
Guest

4 years as the Minister of Justice officially qualifies as legal practice. Add that to his 18 year lawyer career and he has 22 years.

Member

I can’t wait to see his reply to the HCLU (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union) about the reasons for nuking the tobacco tax increase. This distinguished gentleman suggested that somebody suggested in the last minute to torpedo the tax increase but he has no recollection where the proposal came from. He went: “The tobacco lobby was stronger”. Johnny? Do you really want this POS voting machine to guard our constitutional rights?

Member

I think not so slowly the whole government and all the “independent body” is slipping under the control of the Fidesz. It would be worth to draw up a T-chart with all important institutions listed and in a column and two other columns, one for Fidesz and one for all other parties. Next to each institutions put how many positions are we talking about, and beside in each column the number of Fidesz and the number of other party (or independent) numbers put into those posts. Actually I will start to put that together in Xcel, so everyone has some suggestions what the first column should contain that would be great. (Media Authority, Constitutional Court, Constitution Committee, etc.)

Johnny Boy
Guest

Mutt: at least he was honest, in contrary to MSZMP/SZDSZ politicians,
1. against whom the lobbies (of any kind) were not simply stronger but were practically the politicians’ employers;
2. who lied day and night and never ever admitted anything.
I hope the whole tobacco issue is soon going to get completely re-legislated, as things point towards it.
The ‘voting machine’ thing is called caucus discipline. Every party does this, without this parties couldn’t even work.
I mention these just to get things straight.
On the other hand, I never supported Balsai as a constitutional judge, he is clearly a party politician and I frankly don’t see why Fidesz didn’t search for someone else with the same legal expertise but with a less prevalent party background. Nominating Balsai is an useless confrontation with many people.

Member

Johnny Boy said: “I frankly don’t see why Fidesz didn’t search for someone else with the same legal expertise but with a less prevalent party background.”
I think what Eva and a few others (including me) are questioning here is if he even has the required legal expertise, so the same experience as Balsai as would not be satisfactory either. The second problem is that the word combination “less prevalent suggests that a Fidesz party affiliate would be OK as longs as people would not be aware of his affiliation. No, I do not think this would be either as a member of the Constitutional Court should be independent from any party or someone who is critical even with the party she/he supports. Fidesz’ criteria for any position so far has been clear and concise devotion not on only for Fidesz but for Orban himself.

Member

Well, he wasn’t completely honest. We will see when he answers the inquiries. I think the HCLU collected several hundred already. So far he denied to disclose what happened and why he didn’t let the committee members discuss the change. He very like got the “order” from Matolcsy (or Orban) and just executed it. Calling this “the stronger tobacco lobby” is, for me sounds like lying, but at least cynicism.
I understand your point on the “caucus discipline” but ultimately these guys report to their voters. This means asking serious questions before pushing the button not just doing what they are told from above.

Paul
Guest

“In this same article Balsai complained about the so-called fact that the powers of the Constitutional Court were too great and reminded its members about “the primacy of the parliament.” I don’t think that I have to explain what a serious misunderstanding this is of the functioning of a democratic state with its checks and balances.”
This, of course, assumes that he, and the people who appointed him actually give a flying fig about “the functioning of a democratic state with its checks and balances”.

Kirsten
Guest

“who lied day and night and never ever admitted anything”
Johnny, last time MSzP was unbearable because they “lied day and night AND admitted it”…

Paul
Guest

If you stand up and sdmit to “lying day and night”, how is that not admitting it?
Logic has never been your strong point, SB, but that really is weird.

Member

I posted something else, but it got lost…
Johnny Boy also said that “4 years as the Minister of Justice officially qualifies as legal practice.” It does not qualify. Of course Fidesz will change that.
Also, I think Fidesz had a big problem with judges who practiced prior the “regime” change (prior to 1990). It does not seem to be a problem when they staffing their people into key positions to serve their interest.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Some1: “Johnny Boy also said that “4 years as the Minister of Justice officially qualifies as legal practice.” It does not qualify.”
Of course not. If it did Balsai wouldn’t have come up with his claim that being a member of the Bar Association (Ügyvédi Kamara) made him a practicing lawyer.

Johnny Boy
Guest

Kristen: “Johnny, last time MSzP was unbearable because they “lied day and night AND admitted it”…”
No they never admitted it, they GOT CAUGHT with it, I wonder if you understand the difference.
Paul you don’t seem more reasonable either. Something that was told behind the scenes is leaked months later, do you call that ‘admitted’? It doesn’t matter by whom they got snitched on, and anyone with some sense of morale knows the difference between admitting something and getting caught with something.

Member

At the time when Johnny Boy did not turn on the “Read even more selectively then before” device (meaning he admittedly read my comment, which supposedly he doesn’t do any more as his feelings got hurt by reading his own comments posted back to him) I listed a few factual things (with proper references) about that Fidesz’ lies and misleads. Fidesz (and Johnny Boy) would not admit to those lies, and there were no rebuttal posted to those facts so I assume that even Johnny Boy admits that Fidesz was caught… You can find the list under the post Listening to television news at MTV, Duna TV, and ATV Posted by: Some1 | July 10, 2011 at 08:41 PM.

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